What Are Cops Really Good For? A Brief History

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As January came to a close, so did the New York City Police Department’s work slowdown. The act of protest—not quite a strike, not officially sanctioned by the NYPD’s union—had been in response to the deaths of two police officers in Brooklyn at the hand of a criminal from Baltimore, Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Beforehand, he had written on his Instagram page: “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours…let’s take 2 of theirs,” claiming revenge for the death of Eric Garner and the subsequent non-indictment of the cop who killed him.

The slowdown targeted Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose crime was expressing sympathy for Garner and the widespread protests in response to Garner’s death. According to The New York Post, which spent the past month lambasting the mayor and championing the police, officers only arrested people when they had to—as if officers should ever arrest someone when they don’t have to. What they weren’t doing was issuing parking tickets or summonses for minor, quality-of-life crimes. Ironically these were the very types of crimes—like selling loose cigarettes on the street—for which officers had tried to arrest Garner, and emblematic of the Broken-Windows policing New Yorkers and other citizens had long been protesting.

The result was that overall arrests were down 66 percent for the period of the slowdown, and summonses for low-level offenses were down 94 percent. And yet, the biggest city in the country did not grind to a halt. No one fled in fear. It’s not even clear if there are victims who remain unavenged, or that New Yorkers registered the city as more dangerous than they do normally. If the police department can lower crime rates by arresting people only when they have to, who are they arresting the rest of the time? It gets to a question we’ve been subconsciously mulling over for years now, a communal quandary finally breaking through to the surface: What, exactly, are the police for?

A communal quandary is finally surfacing: What, exactly, are the police for?

The idea of the modern police department was born in London in 1829, championed by then-Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel. He laid out nine principles of modern policing in a founding document, the first of which was “to prevent crime and disorder.” The rest were meant to reassure Parliament, members of which resisted Peel’s ideas, that professional police departments wouldn’t become a standing army lording over the populace. Peel’s principles required police officers to be public servants first. The use of force would be a last resort. This gave birth to the ideal of community policing, that people would view officers as part of the neighborhood, and someone they could trust.

These are still technically the principles, but they’re no longer the practice. The pivot came in the 1960s, the same period when so much else changed. In the decades before, white Americans fled the inner cities for the new, modern suburbs. When riots broke out in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the two sides were set: poor, law-breaking African-Americans in city centers, led by militant groups like the Black Panthers, versus the white cops who formed a wall between the turmoil and safe suburban enclaves.

Empowered in the decades since by laws and court decisions that give officers wide latitude to use their authority to stop and search citizens and arrest them, police departments have become even more soldier-like. Crime rose in the hollowed-out cities, bereft of services. Many municipalities once required that officers live in the cities where they serve—the NYPD did until 1962—to foster a sense of community policing, but most have abandoned such requirements or never adopted them, furthering the distances between officers and the communities they policed.

Then we started the War on Drugs. In 1982, two political scientists wrote an essay in The Atlantic called “Broken Windows,” arguing that policing heavily for minor offenses like turnstile-jumping or graffiti-tagging would get criminals off the street and prevent some violent crimes. A federal program allowed local police departments to arm themselves with second-hand military equipment. Radley Balko has often written about how police department’s missions have become more militarized, too, and their primary objective is to end their shifts alive, as if they had spent it inside a war zone. Police departments have become the occupying force Peel’s skeptics in Parliament feared it would become.

It’s not clear whom they’re keeping safe: white people from black people, or rich people from the riff-raff, or both. Champions of this policing style like to claim they are keeping black people safe from themselves: Every time an officer kills an unarmed black man, a conservative commentator says something about black-on-black crime. (It comes from the FBI data on crime, which show that most black murder victims are killed by other African-Americans. But it’s misleading. Most white murder victims are killed by whites, because the vast majority of murder victims are killed by someone they know well. The statistics are just more evidence of how segregration has endured.)

Police departments have also started to perform another function: Making up for low tax revenues in cities. Matt Taibbi called them backdoor tax collectors. After 17-year-old Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri in August, Balko detailed how St. Louis County received as much as 40 percent of its revenue from things like court fines and tickets. These two strains are of a piece: Officers are no longer expected to serve poor, black, urban communities as public servants. Their job is to find new ways to wall them off, charge them and put them in jail. That’s how we end up with a police department that can slow down arrests without a measurable impact on public safety.

After the Brooklyn cops were shot, it seemed to bolster the conservative argument that being an officer is uniquely dangerous. Michelle Malkin wrote on The National Review’s website that an officer is killed every 58 hours—but that’s an average taken of every officer death in the line of duty over the past ten years and includes deaths from things like car accidents, not just homicides. In reality, officer killings are much rarer than they used to be, and the job has gotten steadily safer for decades. Liberals and libertarians are quick to point out that “police officer” isn’t even on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ top ten most dangerous jobs; those are reserved for workers who operate heavy, dangerous equipment, like truck drivers, loggers and construction workers.

Cops are there to be braver than the rest of us. Part of that entails not shooting people.

Yet that debate misses the point. The police’s Us versus Them mentality frames the communities being policed as inherently dangerous. In that worldview, every young black man is an Ismaaiyl Brinsley just waiting to shoot. Look at the pictures from Ferguson: The officers on the tops of tanks pointing rifles at unarmed protestors, an officer calling mostly black protestors “animals.” See also: the video from South Carolina of an officer shooting a man retrieving his license from his truck right after he’d been asked to provide it. The man posed no danger, but the officer was ready to believe he did.

No one is denying that officers put their lives on the line, and no one wants officers to die. They are often rushing into situations from which the rest of us are fleeing. When we call them, it’s because there’s danger we can’t deal with on our own. Chaos can erupt quickly, and officers can be targets. But that’s the job they’ve signed up for. Preparing for that requires intense training, which still counsels that the use of force should be a last resort. We entrust officers with guns because we expect them to take their power to use them seriously.

What are cops for? They’re there to be braver than the rest of us. Part of that entails not going around shooting people.

Of course officers are not superhumans. Their mistakes, though, are serious, and cost lives. (Though we don’t even know how many black men are shot by police in any given year.) Instead of admitting that, officers retreat to the idea that they should never be criticized. Officers literally turned their back on DeBlasio during a funeral of one of the slain officers, Rafael Ramos, for having the temerity to quote a hashtag from the protests—#BlackLivesMatter. Police departments believe they’re at war with anyone who disagrees with them, too.

It feels quaint to hope for a time when an officer spends his time standing on a corner, keeping an eye on things, and maybe go the whole course of his shift without issuing a summons or frisking a single teenager, because he didn’t need to. (Or wasn’t compelled to by superiors. Officially, the police department says it doesn’t have quotas on arrests or summonses, but unofficially, it’s part of the gig.) In many ways, police departments I’ve observed in wealthier white enclaves still operate that way, responding to citizen complaints and participating in town and city council meetings like just another community member. Critics contend that without Broken Windows policing in cities, we would see a rise in crime. Judging from New York City’s January, it’s not clear that’s true. But the question is whether we would see a rise in disorder beyond which we could tolerate.

If officers’ jobs were still to keep the peace, they must have noticed that lately, they’re often the source of turmoil, rather than its cure. We’re living in a country where officers disrupt the peace as much as they keep it. Surely, part of that comes from arresting people more than they have to. As the slowdown ended, Bill Bratton said he expected the numbers of arrests and tickets to return to normal. What, exactly, is a “normal” level of crime? There may be a certain amount of disorder that comes with city life. But there may also be a manufactured level of crime generated by needless police activity. We could do without that if we decided to.

Clarification: The post originally stated that “crime” went down 66 percent during the period in question, but it should have said “arrests” dropped 66 percent.

Monica Potts is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a fellow with the New America foundation.

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